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Book of the week: Harry Potter's creator

J K Rowling: a biography
By Sean Smith
Michael O'Mara Books pound;16.99

Sean Smith's Harry Potter story began only last November, when he read a piece by Rowling in the Sun that she had written in support of single parents. A journalist turned writer, he spotted potential for a biography, sped-read the four novels and transformed a bundle of press cuttings and a sprinkling of interviews into pound;16.99 a copy, published well in time for the Harry Potter film release next month. Magic! He hasn't talked to Rowling, her family or close friends, or the Portuguese ex-husband who took the tabloids' money.

His swiftly acquired enthusiasm for the books and admiration for the author has a genuine ring and he has covered his turf. While there's little new material, there's location, location, location. His glimpses of the Forest of Dean, a possible model for Rowling's Forbidden Forest, are intriguing, but some of his attempts to wring significance from her early life don't work: it is unlikely that the world of Hogwarts owes much to the fairies, elves and sprites of her Brownie pack.

He's been to the outskirts of Bristol, where Rowling played with a boy called Potter, and to the primary school in the Wye Valley where she was placed briefly in "dunce's row". We hear from former teachers at Wyedean comprehensive including the American student who wishes she had kept Rowling's creative writing papers, and John Nettleship, the former head of chemistry who might well be the model for Snape, the dreaded Hogwarts potions tutor.

Research at Exeter University reveals that its most famous French and classics undergraduate admired Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and that she had a denim jacket and liked cigarettes, coffee and vodka. Smith didn't attend Rowling's honorary degree ceremony at Exeter last year, but he's seen the video. He has been to Portugal and persuaded someone to hand over her wedding photograph.

Rowling is an extraordinary woman but the extraordinary part of her life is her writing. The real events of her pre-Potter life, even the high and low points are only extraordinary to her and to others whose business it is. Although her fans will look for connections between her life and books, Smith's speculation on how she looked in her first school uniform, or her mother's appearance when five months pregnant, will not enhance this process and seems desperate and unnecessary.

  • Picture: J K Rowling at Exeter University
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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